May 5, 2016 / 10:24 PM / 4 years ago

Fort McMurray fire chief becomes face of besieged city

LAC LA BICHE, Alberta (Reuters) - Darby Allen was the relatively unknown fire chief of a remote Canadian city before a raging wildfire made him responsible for getting 88,000 people to safety.

Flames rise in Industrial area south Fort McMurray, Alberta May 3, 2016. Courtesy CBC News/Handout via REUTERS

Allen, a British immigrant who has lived in Canada for decades, is being hailed as a hero on social media for his successful evacuation this week of the entire population of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and the ongoing battle against an out-of-control fire.

He fought back tears as he outlined the evacuation on Tuesday, describing it as the worst day of his career.

“The people here are devastated ... This is going to take us a while to come back from,” he said at a news conference earlier this week.

But, reflecting the spirit of a blue-collar city at the heart of Canada’s oilsands industry, he expressed determination that Fort McMurray would recover.

“We are here, and we are strong, and we will keep doing our job.”

The wildfire near Fort McMurray spread south and forced more evacuations on Thursday after spreading ten-fold overnight and destroying hundreds of homes.

“This is a nasty, dirty fire. There are certainly areas within the city that have not been burned, but this fire will look for them, and it will find them, and it will try and take them,” Allen said during news conference on Wednesday.

Fort McMurray’s fire chief for just over three years, Allen began his career as a firefighter in Hampshire, England, in 1984, before joining the Calgary Fire Department in 1992, according to his LinkedIn profile.

While he could not be reached for an interview, Allen showed a sense of humor on his profile, describing his responsibilities in Calgary as “leaping small buildings” and in Fort McMurray as “seemed like everything...”

His impassioned speech to reporters as he described the efforts his department had made to fight the fire earned Allen praise on social media.

“Poor Darby Allen, be strong buddy ... Thank you for everything. (We) can make it through this!!!” Stephen Whitehead tweeted.

Twitter user Ron Hole wrote: “No idea what Wood Buffalo fire chief Darby Allen makes a year but he has earned every cent of it the past few days.”

Additional reporting by Susan Taylor in Toronto, Writing by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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